Inuit heal and remember at Rankin Inlet qaggiq
“We are who we have always been”
Piita Irniq drum-dances inside the huge qaggiq snowhouse in Rankin Inlet built for last week’s “Left Behind-Never Again” gathering for former residential school students.
You can always learn to drum, not matter what age you are, Irniq said he wants to remind others.
As a young boy, more than 50 years ago, far from his home near today’s community of Repulse Bay, at Lyons Bay or Naujaarjuat (a place of plentiful seagull fledglings), Irniq had little chance to learn Inuit traditional songs or drumming.
Instead, shipped out for months at a time, Irniq, now 65, attended three residential schools: in Chesterfield Inlet from 1957 to 1963, Yellowknife in 1963-64, and Churchill in 1964-65.
At Chesterfield’s Inlet school, run by Oblate priests and Grey Nuns, Irniq lived at Turquetil Hall, the residence for the Sir Joseph Bernier School.
This was the most infamous residential school in the eastern Arctic, where Irniq, along with many other young Inuit, suffered physical and sexual abuse.
For Irniq, his school days there included sexual abuse from a Grey Nun, being “severely punished,” and a stream of verbal abuse from an Oblate brother who used to tell his students they were just “bloody dodos.”
Former residential school students first gathered in Chesterfield Inlet in 1993 to talk about those experiences, marking the beginning of public disclosures by former Inuit students across Nunavut.
The healing process continued last week in Rankin Inlet at the event, organized by Pulaarvik Kablu Friendship Centre’s Kivalliq Counseling and Support Services, along with former residential students who included Irniq, former Nunavut MP and Arctic Ambassador Jack Anawak, and Levinia Brown, a former Nunavut MLA and minister.
So many words, with so much wisdom, so much knowledge and pain, Irniq reflected as the week-long event wrapped up.
But that’s okay, Irniq said, because telling about pain is healing.
A man, now in his 70s — more than 50 years after he was abused at residential school — finally managed to talk about the experience of being sexually abused by an Oblate brother.
For years, that man had been in a “very big pain,” Irniq said.
“I am so sorry, that I revealed it,” the man told Irniq.
But Irniq told him, “no, you shouldn’t be. It is good that you reveal here because from this day you are going to heal. You will be a healthier person in the end.”
Openness and healing can win over pain and trauma, Irniq believes.
In the qaggiq, and during discussions at the healing circles, Irniq and the other former residential school students reclaimed “our culture for ourselves and for our grandchildren’s children,” he said.
“We are who we have always been,” Irniq said.
The idea behind the Rankin Inlet gathering, called “Left Behind-Never Again,” was to take back “what we have lost,” so that no one will “left behind, never again,” as Irniq and others were for many years.
During the week, Irniq, Anawak, Brown and the other former residential school students also talked about their experiences with school children, meeting them at their schools and inside the igloos, built by local elders.
The kids were eager to know more about the former students’ residential experience, Irniq said. They wanted to know how old he and the others were when they left home and why and how they were punished.
At the opening ceremonies, the contribution of public servant and whistleblower Marius Tungilik, who died last December at 55, was also recognized.
Tungilik’s disclosures about sexual abuse at the Sir Joseph Bernier residential school in the early 1990s led to a cascade of other disclosures and eventually, an apology from the church.
In July 1993, Tungilik, Irniq and Anawak, all from Repulse Bay, organized the first Chesterfield Inlet school reunion where Bishop Reynald Rouleau made his first apology to the residential school students.
But a lot has happened since then — more apologies for the residential schools from the Roman Catholic church and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The federal government also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a result of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
To recognize Tungilik, his daughter, Tanya Tungilik, accepted a plaque saying: “Left Behind-Never Again, Honouring those from Rankin Inlet.”
Other Kivalliq communities will receive similar plaques to honour the former residential students from their communities, Irniq said.
Irniq, a former Northwest Territories MLA, Nunavut deputy minister and first Commissioner of Nunavut, who like many other residential students achieved great professional success, knows “where we have been and where we are going.”
And for Canadians, it’s also important to continue hearing about the residential school experience “because they have a duty and a responsibility to know.”
“People need to know about this because the residential school experience is everyone’s responsibility,” he said.